What I Need is What I Fear is What I Need

Wakana (my music therapist) has been helping me learn to assert myself, particularly in the realm of acknowledging, accepting, and acting on my emotions. I’ve learned to express my needs and wants, politely disagree, and set boundaries. I’m still working to develop these skills; it will probably be a lifelong process. But the foundation is there, and I feel pretty good about building on it.

The thing is, most of my work has been in the realm of one-on-one interactions. I have individual music therapy with Wakana. Our marriage counselor helps Fox and me have more intentional, supportive interactions with each other. I’m learning to assert myself in conversations with my mom, or situations in which Mom is accompanying me as I interact with another person (such as my dress fitting), or appointments with healthcare professionals.

I get lost in group situations. Even spending time with friends, there’s usually some point during our time together when I feel overwhelmed, overlooked, and unheard. I was barely able to participate in that one support group meeting I went to (no, I haven’t been back yet). Forget about being heard and acknowledged when my family is involved. I think about having most of my and Fox’s families all in one room just over a month from now and it seems like the worst idea I’ve ever had. If it’s not a disaster, it will definitely be overwhelming. I will probably be disappointed by at least some of them. What was I even thinking?

I really need to develop social skills. It’s not just me, people with psychiatric and/or mental health issues tend to have underdeveloped social skills. I’m inclined to believe that lack of a healthy home environment, same-age siblings or cousins, and appropriate modelling interfered with my ability to develop my social skills – particularly when it came to interacting within a group. I was also bullied and ostracized at school, which further limited my ability to practice social skills in a peer group. This in turn had a harmful impact on my mental health. I don’t know to what extent this hypothesis can be generalized, but we’re social creatures and society is the environment we have to adapt to.

Lack of social skills means we need group therapy and opportunities to practice interacting in structured group activities, so we can have some semblance of support in developing those skills. Actually, part of why I like tabletop gaming so much is because most games structure group interactions and lend themselves to turn-taking, so everyone gets some opportunity to be the center of a attention – seen and heard – for a short time.

Most of the psychological services I’ve been able to find in my area focus on the individual. Individual therapy, opportunities for individuals to submit their creative works to be posted online, classes individuals can attend and learn from that may provide some opportunity for group interaction, but that isn’t the primary focus. I have enough individual stuff going on, I really need to work on my social skills in a group. Why can’t I find one?

The answer is: because I’m afraid to find one. There’s a support group that meets weekly that I could be going to, but I keep finding some excuse not to go. I have briefly joined and enjoyed participating in at least 3 additional groups I can think of right now, I but stopped showing up after just one or two meetings, even though I’d had a positive experience.

I don’t know if it’s that I don’t fit in or I don’t want to fit in, or something else entirely. Maybe I want to abandon the group before it has the opportunity to abandon me – or worse, consume me. I don’t want being part of a group to mean losing my autonomy.

Being in a group situation takes all of my energy; I feel like I need to be at my best to come out of it feeling anything other than drained. To put it in terms of Spoon Theory, interacting in a group takes so many of my spoons that I can only do it on days when I have more spoons to begin with; most of the time it requires me to borrow spoons from the next day. Just getting out the door on time looking presentable can take several spoons. Sometimes, by the time I’ve introduced myself, I just don’t have the spoons I need to follow a conversation, navigate the complex thoughts and emotions that fill the room to the point where I don’t know which ones are actually mine, formulate responses, and get people to pay attention and listen to what I have to say. How can I develop social skills for interacting in a group if I don’t have enough spoons to exist in that group, never mind trying to learn something?

I need a group activity that restores spoons, such as creating music or art. Music in particular is a completely different way of interacting: you’re listening and “speaking” simultaneously, so everyone gets heard. You are a part of something bigger than yourself, you can hear it and that makes it so much easier to feel and internalize. Every part matters, even – no, especially! – the supportive, “background” parts.

I have less experience with art, but being creative is energizing. Focusing on my own artwork gives me a socially acceptable way to back out of the group activity a little bit to recharge without leaving it completely. It opens up the possibility of positive interactions, such as commenting on an aspect of someone else’s artwork (e.g. use of color) that I like. People are more likely to have and express more positive emotions that I don’t find overwhelming – I might actually get a high off them. I can also communicate something visually, so I don’t have to rely quite so much on the verbal communication I find so challenging.

Trying to find an arts-based group geared toward mental health in my area has been like hitting my head against a brick wall. Either I don’t know where to look, or they just don’t exist. I could reach out for help; that might be my best chance of actually managing to find something.

There are quite a few art-related groups in my area on Meetup.com; the difficulty I’m facing is selecting one I feel comfortable joining and might actually go to. Looking at some that seem promising, I feel like I’m going to cry because I simultaneously want to join in the fun and question my ability to do so. Will I be accepted?

Dancing in the Eye of the Storm

So I’ve been officially married for a little over a day now (by about three hours), and that’s been enough time to process a decent amount of what happened yesterday.

Ziya and I started yesterday off tired. I was running on less sleep the ze was, and had just enough time to shower, shave and have a weak cup of tea; particularly since we were meeting Banji for breakfast. That breakfast was good and calm; we got back with just enough time for Ziya and hir mom to head out for their hair appointments.

And that’s where the chaos started. Earlier, Ziya and I agreed that chocolates from a nearby restaurant/confectionery would make a good gift for our officiant. Since Ziya had a hair appointment, it was up to me to pick them up and choose the assortment. I did so with Banji’s help after I got dressed (including a new element that I decided to bring at the spur of the moment); she drove Ziya’s car to the restaurant and back. The drive over was calm enough, and gave us time to talk. But of course, we arrived 45 minutes before the place opened. So we did the only smart thing: drove back, and decided we’d head out just after opening time. The remaining half-hour or so was a blur of nervous movement; my double-checking that we had everything we needed to bring with us, getting Banji’s help with preparing a cross that showed up better on the shirt, and then finding myself with more time than I had things to do with it.

Which I began to spend worrying about the unknown, small details. It took Banji encouraging me to go meditate or otherwise do something to calm down for me to actually do so. But it helped: rather than fighting to control something I couldn’t then, I worked within how the morning was beginning to flow. Then, about 11am we made the second attempt at the chocolate gathering trip. This one was successful (even though I began to get nervous about how long it was taking). But I apparently didn’t need to worry; Ziya and hir mom had arrived back later than we had expected, and were still getting ready when we returned. So in the end, our second trip didn’t mess up our timing.

We all arrived at the restaurant where the ceremony was to take place well before our original “need to arrive” time of 1:30pm. And honestly, this was where the storm really began to pick up speed. Non-essential guests began to arrive earlier than we had anticipated they would; making figuring out seating arrangements very entertaining. That also delayed critical set up elements; things like figuring out where the ceremony would actually occur, setting up the video camera, etc. And then, a little after 2pm, we found out that our original information had been wrong: we were going to have the ceremony first, and then appetizers; not the other way around.

Up until that point, I had been trying to carefully wrangle everything, and get it to fit neatly into our expectations of how the day was supposed to go. Ziya and I were standing at the edge of the storm, trying to mold it through sheer force of will. But at that moment, I did something very smart: I stood in the eye of the storm instead, and began to move with it. Ziya seemed to follow my lead on that shortly after. And in doing so, we began to “dance” with the beat the storm was providing.

And that’s when everything fell into place, and we began to enjoy ourselves. We trusted our friends and family to do their part well, and were able to enjoy the company we had assembled there. We were able to focus on the moment, and be fully present in what is arguably the most important ritual for our shared lives together. And we danced that dance for the next four hours through a five course meal, a gorgeous ceremony, inspired (and beautiful) blessings/prayers and toasts, and conversation that seemed to flow naturally. The only bump amidst all this was the semi-frequent, posed photo opp interruptions, and those only became a real problem towards the end.

We left the restaurant exhausted but happy; we danced our way through the first step on our journey together as a married couple. We were able to spend most of the rest of the night enjoying each other’s company, and the warmth and love that came through each like, congrats, and other blessings posted on Facebook. And we realized that what my cousin (among others) had said was true: the marriage did change our relationship. Not in a scary way though; the very act of declaring our commitment to each other in front of all of those witnesses made the commitment that much more important; that much more of an anchoring point for our new life together.

We all know it’ll never happen, so why do we waste our breath?

The things I seem to struggle with the most are knowing my limits and setting boundaries. By “setting boundaries” I mean asserting them and enforcing and defending them no matter what efforts the people I love make to tear them down. This keeps happening, over and over and over again. And at the end of the day, who’s hurt by it? Me. I might say or do some things that hurt other people, too, but guess what? That also hurts me!

The past couple weeks have been crazy. The end of the semester is always insane. Then on Wednesday 12/19 I had to pick my best friend up at the airport and pack for a 2-day road trip. Thursday and Friday we drove around like crazy people so she could find a new apartment. We’re thrilled because she’ll only be 4 hours away instead of 14! But it was also a lot of driving with her dad (who is awesome! – but: 1. adding a third person changes the dynamic so we interact less, and 2. I seem to fall asleep the instant I’m in the back seat of a moving car). So, I feel like I lost 2 days. Saturday my roommate had a party at the apartment, which was fun but also a bit draining (for an introvert).

My mom is having the area of her house where I’ll be living fixed up, which is incredibly nice of her. I’m really excited about it. On Sunday we went to the hardware store to look at paint colors and some other items, with limited success. Spending time with her and my fiance simultaneously was nice … but can also be quite stressful because somehow I end up being the one who has to deal with the things they both do to get on each others’ nerves.

Monday has its own post and there isn’t much more to say about Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday were crazy. I was at Mom’s while the contractors were working. I blinked and suddenly two rooms were painted, with ALL THE THINGS in a third room and a fourth room – my new bedroom – completely empty. The contractor wanted to paint the bedroom, which is the only room I hadn’t picked a color for yet, so I had only a handful of hours to make my decision. We went to 2 hardware stores and picked out several color swatches, then came home and helped move everything out of the bedroom, then Mom asked if I’d picked a color. Of course not! I had to consider colors with Mom and the contractors watching me, making me feel like I was being indecisive and taking forever.

Finally I made a decision, then rushed over to my best friend’s parents’ house to celebrate the holidays with her and five of our mutual friends. We had the gathering yesterday because my fiance and I had plans with his family for today and two of our friends wouldn’t have been able to come if we’d had it tomorrow. I enjoyed spending time with people, but found it difficult to remain engaged. I was too tired to put in the effort to fully participate. I feel like I missed out on a lot.

I wish I’d known my limits well enough to anticipate that I would need a day or two between events to recuperate. And I wish I’d set boundaries by scheduling in those days, regardless of protests by others who would be inconvenienced by them.

Today I was supposed to go celebrate the holidays with my fiance’s immediate family, who already consider and treat me as one of their own. Driving to their house can take up to 2 hours and tends to be very stressful. I would have had to make the drive alone.

I thought I’d be up to it, but this morning I woke up feeling dead. I explained my decision not to come, but they tried to talk me into coming anyway with promises of tasty food and information about why today is really best for them. I abandoned my attempt at a boundary by agreeing to come, but in the evening instead of afternoon.

Then they asked (via text message) if they should wait for me to have dinner, and I snapped. Dinner is the family coming together to share a meal and connect with one another; it is nourishment for the spirit as well as the body. They shouldn’t have needed to ask if I wanted to be a part of that. They should have wanted to share it with me and decided on their own to make that happen. That they would even consider not doing so felt like the gravest offense – especially after the sacrifice I had agreed to make out of consideration for them!

I sent an angry text telling them to have their dinner and holiday celebration without me, ignored my fiance’s calls and even turned off my phone. I did my long-neglected laundry. I took a shower for the first time in almost a week. I scribbled in my sketchbook and wrote this post and relaxed in bed. While it was still light out I looked out the window and admired the beautiful blue sky.

Maybe I’m starting to feel human again. And as a human I know I can’t go on like this. I plan too much because I want to make everybody happy, but I ignore my limits and my needs. Then instead of asserting myself and maybe making someone a little unhappy, I let myself get pushed and pushed and pushed until I have no choice but to push back. We all feel horrible. Rinse and repeat.

This is the time of year when everyone’s probably posting their New Year’s Resolutions, so I guess I’ll jump on the bandwagon and share mine:

  1. I will figure out what my limits are. For some things I might be able to write out “rules” to follow later, such as “I can only plan 2 social events for one week” or “I must get 8 hours of sleep.” For others I’ll just need to listen to what my body is telling me in the moment.
  2. I will set my boundaries. That means letting others know my limits and using my limits as a guide to set boundaries with others. It means maintaining my boundaries no matter what. I will not compromise until I learn to do so without sacrificing my own needs. I will risk hurting someone’s feelings a little bit now to avoid hurting them (and myself) a lot later.